Thursday, December 27, 2007

What is Art? - Prelude

What is art? (My dear wife might now say something like, "Don't you mean, 'Art who?'" - but she has already told me she won't touch this question on-line with a virtual forty foot pole.)

I have pondered and debated this question for nearly thirty years, and I studied the question and did an honors thesis on it in college (where I graduated with a degree in Philosophy including Aesthetics). It's a confusing question, that makes people angry (or bored) - but I think I've got it mostly sorted out now. I hope by writing these posts I can clarify for myself, in this public place, what I mean by art - and hopefully, if you read all this, it will clarify what YOU mean by art.

The largest problem most of us have in any conversation about art is that we usually aren't talking about the same things. So let's get a few things clear up front.

Item #1. I am going to assume that the word "art" or the idea of a "work of art" has a distinct meaning. It means something in particular, and clarity is possible. If you don't think that's true, perhaps my posts will persuade you of it by the end, but I think we have a better chance of understanding each other if we can grant this item at the start - at least for now.

Item #2. Art is not a value word. It's not like "good" or "wonderful" or "best" or even "beautiful." We sometimes use the word this way - to elevate something by calling it a work of art - but that's not the correct technical use of the word "art." Art can be good or bad, can fail or succeed, can be beautiful or ugly or neither, and still be art. So art is a type of thing - not a way of saying how good a thing it is.

This idea that art is somehow "better" than other objects causes most of the heat in the arguments. Americans are egalitarian, and they hate to see some objects, or some work, raised above others. And many artists and art critics are snobs, and that causes further damage (I've done my share of that). But this idea that "art" is somehow "higher" than other things is misleading and just clouds all conversation. Art may turn out to be more difficult to do well, or more rare than some other types of objects - but we have yet to decide what art IS, so it's too early to say that.

Item #3. "Art" should be distinguished from "craft." I will plainly state here that I have seen many works of craft that were more valuable, more beautiful, and took more human effort than other items which I believe are works of art. This gets back to #2, above - just because something is "art" doesn't make it better, more valuable, or more beautiful than "craft," but there is a difference, and unraveling that difference is a large part of the work I plan to do in the next few posts.

Item #4. Some "art" is about art, is commenting specifically on the status of art, and is even deliberately breaking the rules that define art - all in the name of art. This sort of game is lots of fun for some people, especially for people who understand the jokes or implied comments, but it has greatly confused most of us. I intend to discuss these works as we travel along - but they make the most sense later. For now, though, it is important to realize that a lot of modern art is weird in this way - and so we'd be better off leaving it out of the conversation for now. Let's say that some modern art is like "the exception that proves the rule."

In the next post we'll start with "everything" and start chipping things away that aren't art. This might help us get closer to what it is - or at least help us find some characteristics of "art."


Jonathan Christie said...

A middle aged friend of mine recently took her old Mum around the current retrospective of the Turner Prize in London. Unsurprisingly, she was rather bemused by a lot of the work: asked "is it art?"

And yes, if you put the question in this way, it seems valid enough when faced with old dirty beds placed in clean white galleries. You cannot appeal to craft skills in assessing the work (not that craft is sufficient to art, as you say). Why is this bed of Tracy's art and mine is not?

I suggested that the question could be changed to a more useful one. Instead of asking "what is art?" or "is this thing art?" why not ask: "what does art do?" or "what does this specimen of so called art do?"

If we shift our gaze from physical or formal aspects of artefacts to how those artefacts function in the world, we can resolve a lot of debates, I think.

For instance, say that a given artefact gestures towards freedom by showing the possibility of new things in the world, is it art? I'd think so. Yet many forms of art could do this.

On the other hand, say that a given artefact merely illustrates some concept; is it art? Perhaps, but I'd be less likely to say so. In fact, I think a lot of stuff we see in galleries these days is doing nothing much more than illustrating some concept or other. Rightly, it ought to be called illustration, not art.

Steve Emery said...


I am very much with you.

I plan to insist that art is not reduceable to the object or act (or the person's title/status) - it is, instead, about what the thing/act "does" to the audience or what it "carries." I will need to demonstrate this - not just insist on it - but I'll state it first (in the next post, actually).

And I'm also with you in agreeing that much that is labeled "art" is actually "illustration" or "craft." I know some successful painters of distinctive style who are honest enough and clear-headed enough to know they are not artists. They call themselves painters. That's what I'd call myself, actually. Art galleries are mostly full of craft. Canvas does not make something art - nor does clay and glaze make something craft.

I recall a pair of broken down muddy leather boots in an art museum in Greenville, North Carolina, carefully protected under plexiglass. Curious to see if this was some type of "found object" art, I read the tag and found that they were made of fired clay. They were breathtaking because they were so unbelievably realistic - but even more so because my head suddenly whirled with the thin line between reality and ruse, with what is meant to protect our fragile feet and what is more fragile yet, with this weird substitution of the unyielding in the place of something that was meant to be pliable, with references to the phrase "feet of clay" twisted to a neighboring space in the boots... I couldn't move for several minutes while my head clicked through these things and others I don't recall. Definitely an art moment - not craft.

And I think this same structure of art vs. illustration vs. craft could be usefully stretched over music, as well. The composers or musicians who break through into somewhere new are artists - the others who follow may just be illustrating or craftspeople (even if they actually have better technique than the artist).

I agree that you stepped right onto the interesting turf when you asked about what the art "does." That's where I'm heading (and I'm looking forward to getting there). I maintain, like you do, that the "goodness" of a work of art is not the same as the "goodness" of an illustration or of a work of craft. It's not a distinction of degree, but of kind.

I appreciate your addition to the discussion. Please feel welcome to continue - here or on your blog (or both).